Fez in September...

It was late by the time we reached Fez, and saying goodbye to Taha was quite sad. He’d been a superstar driver and sunset buddy throughout our two days. We did offer him a bed to crash at in our Fez Airbnb, but he refused; he probably wanted the comfort of his own bed after driving so many miles with us. That eight-hour round trip (and on two consecutive days) wasn’t something I would have fancied undertaking, so we have to thank him for the laughter, entertainment, tips, chat and for our safety too.

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We were led off into the labyrinth of the medina by our next Airbnb host. I remember thinking ‘oh-my-goodness, we are SO going to get lost here!’. It felt a lot more compact than the medina of Marrakech, and definitely a lot more intense than the calm of Chefchaouen. Arriving in the dark, late at night was a little overwhelming - and maybe not the best time to arrive into a city that’s easy to get lost in - especially when there so many dark hidden alleyways and streets. If you do happen to arrive at night, I would advise you enlist the help of a guide, your hotel or Airbnb host or just ensuring you’ve someone to meet you – especially if you are travelling solo.

Anyway, home for the next couple of nights was amazing. Each of us had a floor to ourselves with our own separate bathroom, and most important of all – a rooftop! I opted for the ground floor bedroom, and with that we went to bed, tired, excited, overloaded with thoughts and more excitement for the next two days.

Whenever I’m away visiting a new place, I’m always up super early – mainly through bubbling excitement and my eagerness to get out explore and take photos, and so the next morning – before the call to prayer – and whilst we waited for breakfast to be made for us, I was up and heading up to check out our rooftop view. It wasn’t long before the guys joined me too, and, we were not disappointed. Looking out onto the houses below us and into the distance where we caught glimpses of minarets, clothes lines and satellite dishes feels silent and peaceful. The maze of streets is shielded by rooftops and mosque towers. You would never know that there’s a maze of hustle, bustle, daily life and around 12,000 alleyways just waiting to be discovered. And, how’s this for a fact, apparently only 30 streets here have names! Crazy, huh! With tummies full of more delicious Moroccan bread, pancakes and all sorts of breakfast treats cooked up by our friendly housekeeper, it was now time to really get lost.

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We thought Marrakech was a labyrinth of streets and alleyways all leading into one and another, but oh my, Fez is on another level. It’s totally different to Marrakech. I found it quite compact and for some strange reason, the walls of the city reminded me of being in Italy. I just kept thinking ‘how are we going to get into the heart of this city in only two days?’. My grin from Chefchaouen is making a come-back, and I’m already starting to love this place. The tightly knitted alleyways and streets have you turning around and lost within seconds. Unlike Marrakech, Fez doesn’t really have any real standout landmarks, so we memorise shops, restaurants and the nearest minaret. We amble past donkeys standing patiently, and cats sniffing for scraps of food. We make friends with a jolly chap who emerges cloaked in a white jelleba, we’re intrigued by daily life going on around us, women carry baskets of fresh mint, men sit and sip mint tea; we’re entertained and kept amused…and all the time we take photos.

It was interesting that back in Fez the language (other than Arabic) returned to French, so it was back to shouting out our friendly ‘bonjour’s’ – something that made me happy. I really wish I spoke a little Arabic or at least more French. I mean, English is totally usable, but I wanted to communicate with the old men sitting outside their shops passing the time of day. I wanted to know their story, I wanted to find out what life in the medina was like, did they know every street and alleyway? 

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We find ourselves walking past the most beautiful mosque, it was stunning. We couldn’t enter because we’re not Muslim, but we marvelled from the outside. And just like in Marrakech we headed to the university, or Madrassa as it’s known locally. We pretty much had the courtyard to ourselves. Tourist numbers in Fez do not rival those that head to Marrakech, and that’s what makes the city feel so much more authentic. You can breathe without having a huge crowd of tourists surrounding you, and therefore locals are more chilled and not chasing you to buy something from them.

Nipon and Andrew decided they really wanted a beer to take up onto our rooftop for our nightly ritual of chats and star-gazing, so just as sun was setting we hailed – with a little help and the parting of a few dirham - a taxi (sheesh, remembering that taxi scrabble was intense. It was a crazy free-for-all, everybody literally pounces on the first taxi to stop, and they all pretty much bundle in shouting at the driver!)..
Old Fez gave way to New Fez, and you start to see modern buildings and luxury shops; hotels and proper streets with pavements; and a mall with supermarket complete with a separate alcohol section. This made Andrew and Nipon happy. We picked up some groceries and bread, and that evening we had our own little buffet, followed by star gazing on the rooftop…simple pleasures.

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The next morning Nipon and I decided to set ourselves a pre-breakfast challenge. From our rooftop, we could see a building in the distance. It didn’t look too far away and it stood out quite distinctly – or so we thought. The challenge was ‘to try and find that building’. Andrew opted for a lie in bed, and so off we went…an hour later we were still walking…could we find that building…. erm, no ha ha, still, it was fun trying..

Other than visiting a leather tannery, we didn’t really have a plan of places to visit whilst we were in the city. And, rather than be tricked into going off with some of the tannery touts that were calling out to us on the streets, we decided it might be easier to do a tour of the city with a tannery included. I have to say our guide wasn’t the most endearing guy, and it was kinda hard work chatting to him – which was so unlike everyone else we’d encountered – but he took us to where we wanted to go. We’d read to be prepared for the smell that would assail us at the tannery. It’s a smell made of a made up of a mixture of ingredients to cure and tan the hides. It’s pretty much cow urine, pigeon poo, quicklime and salt water, but honestly none of us found the smell that offensive. We watched a couple of oriental girls shield their faces with bunches of mint, but to us it wasn’t too bad. Gazing down below us, the pools of red, gold and white dye create a quite a remarkable sight. There are men who tightrope across the circular pools carrying bundles of animal skins, and those that strike the hides with their hands and feet, you can see this is a hard job. To get to this vantage point you have to go through one of the leather shops with all sorts of leather items in varying hides and in all manner of colours using natural ingredients such as pomegranate and turmeric…and a thousand sales men (which is all part of the experience!)

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Our guide then led us through the streets, it was interesting to wander through such a real-life market – I don’t think I would ever tire of walking around Fez’s streets, there’s something different going on, on every street, on every corner. There’s a constant display of life. Chicken strut brazenly in cages, absolutely unaware to their fate on the chopping block…cats sashay everywhere greedily gobbling up morsels of scrappy meat which have fallen to the floor, carcasses of animals hang outside shops, the smell of mint and spices hangs in the air, children in their school coats playfully run in and out of people shopping.

We didn’t feel that hungry, but we wanted to sit and get a panoramic view of the city, and so we headed for a restaurant just outside the medina. And, as we walked through the plush interior of the Palais de Fez, I was thinking hhmmmmm this place looks pricey…but no, not at all. Morocco as a whole is cheap to be in, you can feast like a King or Queen here. The decor is enchanting and romantic, all dim lights and pretty cushions. We headed up to the highest terrace, and a table with the best view. Not only was the view a feast for the eyes, the food delivered was the best I’ve eaten in Morocco. Despite not feeling that hungry, we were served little plates of the most delicious salads. Just thinking about the caramelised aubergine with walnuts sprinkled on top, the sweetest tasting carrots, beetroot, tomato and cabbage makes my mouth salivate. We filled up on these tasty mouthfuls of what I’m going to describe as ‘joy’…and then the best couscous (verging-on-legendary) appeared, and oh-my-gosh was it GOOD. Sitting outside with a view of the city, the sun shining down on us was such a happy feeling. I could have eaten every little grain of couscous had my tummy allowed, but we were so full up, and so we asked to take a doggy bag home with us – it really was that good. Come here and you will be one happy traveller! From here we could see the building from the pre-breakfast challenge. None of us are easily defeated, and so we decided to set about and hunt for it again. We blagged our way into several places to get to the roof for a better look, but the building still availed us. It was a fun little mission even if we didn’t succeed…and maybe next time we’ll have better luck!

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None of us wanted to go home, I think we’d all fallen head over heels for this city and for Chef, and so that evening we decided to sit at one of the cafés and people watch for a couple of hours all with the accompaniment of mint tea. And, we were kept thoroughly entertained by the locals all trying to get taxis – it was amazing. We were mesmerized by the art of standing in the right place. Literally as soon as a taxi came along everyone rushed for it and bundled into it…only to get out a few seconds later because the driver wasn’t going in their direction, or because he would only take on person – not two. I can only describe it like watching a TV show. There’s a fine knack to nabbing a taxi in Fez, that’s for sure! Maybe next time we’ll give it another go…because Morocco, I and my travel companions are already working out how and when we’re going to get back :-) 

Chefchaouen in September...

After my trip to Marrakech with my Moroccan travel buddies Andrew and Nipon earlier this year, and our over enthusiasm in trying to get to the Blue Pearl – all in one trip, Chef was still on our minds – and that’s even before we left Marrakech airport. In fact, we were probably already planning our return whilst we were on the flight home!

Why Chefchaouen?...well, other than the fact that I want to go everywhere, I sometimes see photos of a place that make me feel inspired, and I want to go see it for myself. Sometimes it’s purely from talking to people, and sometimes I get a place in my head from books I’ve read. I remember the first time I’d heard about this blue city, and from that day on I knew one day I would eventually get there.

Getting to Chefchaouen seemed like it was going to be little mission. We’d already discovered that from our grand plan to visit from Marrakech. There’s no easy or fast way of getting to the city, and there are a few options of where you could fly into…. we looked at flying into Tangier, Fez and even flying to Gibraltar and getting the ferry across. But, we settled on Fez because we all decided that the city looked interesting to capture with our cameras. It has the largest Medina in Morocco, and we thought Marrakech was large and maze like…this felt like it could be a challenge. Our plan was: Fly into Fez – head straight to Chefchaouen for the night – and then head straight back to Fez after sunset We were hoping to add on another day, but flights-wise, we were kinda restricted, so it was going to be a short and sweet trip. We also were hoping to squeeze in a trip into the desert, and thinking about it, I’m glad that didn’t work out, as I think that would have struggled to see everything. I already thought our time was stretched, as I like to take my time, wander and get a feel for my surroundings. I wanted to experience as much as I could in these two cities, and not waste a single moment.

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Once again, Nipon was placed in charge of sorting out our Airbnb, and he didn’t disappoint. Casa La Hiba was perfect. It was once a family home, belonging to the grandmother of our host Mourad, who was such a lovely amiable guy. He even promised us a driver who would pick us up from Fez airport. It’s over a four-hour drive, so that’s a fair bit of intense driving in the heat. And, our driver Taha was the best! He greeted us with the biggest smile which rarely left his face, and proceeded to lead us towards a BMW. The three of us spotted this nodded a knowing look of approval, like we’d struck gold…and then he continued walking to a rather more modest dusty vehicle, which we found rather amusing.

Anyway, Taha was possibly the best driver. He never looked fed up or cross throughout the drive, and it was hot and sticky that day. He took a shine to our banter, jokes and incessant excitable babble, and gives us lots of little facts throughout our journey. Quickly earning our trust, we filled him up with our car snacks and words of English which he seems to enjoy. Turns out Taha is best mates with Mourad, and we joked with him that the two of them seemed like an old married couple, always on the phone to each other. Some of our funniest moments were our car banter. My favourite has to be Taha’s excitement and enthusiasm at pointing out the mountain that apparently resembles a ‘frog jumping’. Nipon and I for the life of us couldn’t see this ‘frog’ what-so-ever, let alone imagine ‘a frog jumping, Andrew seemed to have more of an imagination that us, and the more we couldn’t see the ‘frog’ the more excited Taha became. I really tried ‘using more of my imagination’ like I was repeatedly told to, but nope...I still couldn’t conjure up a ‘frog jumping’. Bless Taha.

Our car ride took us through modern buildings and construction – which is pretty usual, but in between you’ll see glimpses of local life. Sheep in fields, groups of men lazing about in fields or on street pavement talking. Cafés full to bursting with men just sitting in groups or on their own simply just watching the world go by. I love these snippets of daily life. I find them fascinating and so culturally different considering Morocco is just over a couple hours away from the UK.

I’m going to try my hardest not to get carried away about each and every moment of this trip. Although, that’s going to be a hard one to contain. I’d romanticised about Chefchaouen since arriving back from Marrakech. And, our drive, even though it was long, and hot added to the adventure. At the same time, all I wanted to do was to dump my luggage and get out and explore. I wanted to see whether the ‘Blue Pearl’ really lived up to its name.

I couldn’t wait to catch my first sight of the city. The approach to Chefchaouen had us excited, and a little anxious. As we wound our way over the hills listening to Taha telling us about his life, we were a little hesitant with our first views as we saw lots of white, and only a little blue. Assured by Taha that the city ‘is very blue’, we continued driving. Like many places in Morocco, the oldest parts of the city are within the city walls, and just like Marrakech, Chefchaouen has an old town and a new one. It’s not until you walk through one of the gates, and start to discover the city on foot that you see how beautifully blue it really is. And yes, it’s very blue. It’s total sensory overload and it’s like walking into a fairy tale. Everyone seems happy too, it’s definitely a feel-good place.

The sun had just dipped behind the mountains when we arrived into the city, and feeling a little weary from all the days’ travelling, that evening we headed to a rooftop restaurant where we stuffed ourselves on tasty salads of aubergine, tomato, and the most delicious local cheese which was oh-so good. And, then we called it a night, excited for the next day.

And, what a wake up! The first call to prayer echoing across the blue and white rooftops of the city was one of my personal highlights. It brought back the same feelings we had in Marrakech. I laid in bed thinking how incredibly beautiful it sounded, and in that moment, I felt indescribably happy. I was with two friends, and we were going to have a fun day.

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The sun was shining and we enjoyed breakfast on our rooftop – as well as a hunt for the resident rooftop tortoise. I think I could live on Moroccan breakfasts! The bread is so-so delicious, and the pancakes drizzled with honey is better than what you get at home. After breakfast, Mourad told us that if we wanted to get a good view of the city we should take the steps up the hill ‘there’s not many’, he said…I think Mourad underestimated our fitness. The three of us were left short of breath clambering up a steep hillside and coming face to face with a pack of dogs. The view was a pretty one though, so we didn’t mind.

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As this was our only day in the city, we knew we had to make the most of every little street and every little moment. We walked Chaouen’s (yep, that’s what the locals call it) medina from top to bottom, came across so many friendly people, shouted out ‘hola ’ to countless others. I found it interesting that the locals speak Spanish here - not so much French - but that’s because the city is so far North, and there’s a huge Spanish influence from when Jewish inhabitants from Spain fled to Morocco during the Reconquista of Spain. We stopped to ‘ooo’ over the cutest cats, got offered hashish, watched children playfully run through the streets with happy smiles, and yes, we got lost in a sea of blue. And, it’s no exaggeration to say that every alleyway and street is majestic. You’ll find that feeling in awe of your surroundings is an impossibility and it’s near on impossible to take a bad photo. Part of the charm lies in the quaint medina. It’s not large, but it’s full of vendors selling something or other. From antiques to woken blankets, leather slippers to brass teapots. And, the old town is super easy to navigate. It’s car free, and really chilled, and totally different compared to the chaos, humidity and stress of other Moroccan towns. Chaouen offers up a more relaxed pace, it’s a feast for the eyes and soul, has fresh mountain air, and the purest spring water.

We found ourselves a lovely restaurant where we naturally headed up to the rooftop and refuelled our bellies with tagines - Morocco at its most Moroccan! At that given moment, I think we all wished we were staying for another night – the thought of changing our itinerary did cross our minds, we even checked with Mourad to see if we could stay an extra night….however, Taha was waiting for us. He was taking us up to the Spanish Mosque to watch sunset. We thought he was just going to drop us off and let us make our own way up the hillside, but bless him, he wanted to come with us, and so we all took the short hike. From here, you can look out over the mountains and town. It was a blissful moment of a wonderful day…. And, then the four-hour drive to Fez….

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Day trip to Essaouira…

Because so much happened during our Marrakech trip, I decided to split this post into two separate ones, and tell you about how we ended up having a day trip to Essaouira. If you’ve read my earlier Marrakech post, you’ll have read that Andrew and I came up with a grand plan, that wasn’t quite sound so feasible once we’d worked out the logistics…once the two of us had got over the fact that we wouldn’t be making the 12-hour round trip to Chefchaouen and Nipon had rolled his eyes at us – yeah, I know, we got way too excited with our idea – we settled on having a day to Essaouira. And, it was so much fun.

We found ourselves with an easy-going driver, Abdul and in his willingness to drive us, he also got our humour, chatted away to us and even laughed at our jokes. The drive was around 2 ½ - 3 hours, so it was just as well he found us funny, it was going to be a long drive otherwise, we chat a lot!

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Our drive took us through so many little villages and towns, and we saw so many interesting snippets of local life, and so many photo opportunities. Lorries packed so high with hay or some form of fruit. We even saw a guy riding his motorcycle with a crate of fresh eggs balanced on his head. Like, how did he do that without breaking one?

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I’ve always wanted to shout ‘stop, the car’ and that’s exactly what the three of us said to Abdul as we passed tree goats in Argan trees. I never entirely believed this to be true, even though I’ve seen photos of this rare sight, but it’s real alright. These are not your normal, pasture-grazing goats. These animals climb on top of the Argan trees that can measure 26 to 33 feet high to graze on the fruit. Amazing, right? these trees are also where Moroccan Argan oil comes from.